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I have solid oak kitchen/bath cabinets, build in 1990s, which are generally in a good shape but the finish is not so much. They are covered with some kind of a satin clear finish, applied very thinly, and apparently no stain. I have no idea what exactly the finish is.

I'd like to re-finish them, without fully stripping them first. Can it be done at all? Can I just wipe something like wipe-on polyurethane on them?

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I'd like to re-finish them, without fully stripping them first. Can it be done at all? Can I just wipe something like wipe-on polyurethane on them?

Yes and yes, but there are no guarantees about the results and it is dependent on a few specifics.

Of course the first job would be to thoroughly clean the surface. Any grease (and there will be grease on them, from handling if not from aerosolised cooking oils) will prevent the formation of a proper bond with any new coating.

Best way to find out if this might work for you is to actually test it out. Here's what I would suggest you try to test feasibility:

  • Pick the worst door and take it off the cabinets — the worst because there's no point in continuing if you can't deal with the worst of it.
  • Clean it thoroughly, in practice this will usually mean washing twice, with a methodical rinsing and wiping after each washing. It might also be advisable to wipe down with spirits as well.
  • Very lightly scuff the surface, with fine abrasive paper (e.g. 280-320 grit, approximately equal to P320-P400), fine steel wool or something like Scotch-Brite (common nylon pot scourers can work here).
  • Wipe on your finish and see how it looks once it dries. One coat might not be enough to fully assess the success, I'd try two at least.

If you don't already have wipe-on poly you can make your own very easily. Simply decant some poly (gloss preferably) to a clean container and add spirits, then mix thoroughly. That's it, you're done.

Usual dilution ratio is 1:1, but you can thin more or less to suit your own tastes, to account for the initial thickness of the poly (some are thinner than others) or to compensate for the temperature in the shop (less thinning when it's warm, more thinning when it's cold).

The reason you want to use gloss poly here is so that there are no matting agents to worry about.

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I'd like to re-finish them, without fully stripping them first. Can it be done at all? Can I just wipe something like wipe-on polyurethane on them?

Sure, you can do that, but it will probably look like junk. Long story short, there is no shortcut way to refinish wood. All forms of refinishing (that look nice, anyway) will require removing the existing finish to some level.


Further Discussion

Without a picture showing exactly what you're working with, it's hard to tell exactly what to do in your situation. I'm going to assume that your cabinets are finished using polyurethane based on the time of life you're describing and the general usage of that finish.

Based on my experience with degraded finishes, I'm assuming you have some peeling or flaking of the finish. If they've been in constant use for 25 years, you probably have some rub-through as well.

The rub-through might be a little easier to deal with if all you're looking to do is wipe on a new coat of finish. There is no flakiness to remove, so there is a smooth transition between the finished and non-finished parts, at least as far as tactile smoothness goes. However, the cabinets have 25 years of patina on them in the form of accumulated dirt and grime. Finishing over that will not have a good effect.

If the finish is flaking, you will have to remove the flakes if you want any hope of a nice finish when you're done. And, if you're removing flakes of old finish anyway, you might as well go ahead and remove it all in one go.

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